This article originally appeared on VICE Germany.
Just over a week ago German photographer Felix von der Osten won the British Journal of Photography's Breakthrough Undergraduate Photography Award for his series The Buffalo That Could Not Dream, shot on the Fort Belknap Native American reservation in Montana. But before he focused his attention on that traditional community in the great Northwest, he was documenting another group back in Germany—LARPers. I caught up with him to discuss the appeal that Live Action Role-Playing has to so many, and the overlooked role it plays in helping its participants develop real-world skills.
VICE: Was there a particular reason you started this project, other than having the perfect character name for LARPing?
Felix von der Osten: I was interested in people dressing up in medieval gear, so I started by taking photos at Spectaculum—a festival near Cologne. I had a friend in the scene who was studying with me in Dortmund, so I asked if I could take her picture and get some contacts of others. People were really happy to meet up and open to talking about it. There are a lot of misconceptions surrounding LARPing.
Like what, exactly?
A lot of people think that LARPers are fleeing from their reality. The most interesting thing for me was to discover what it really meant to them, and why one might choose to be a servant in an old pub if you can be a king or a knight? I found it's mostly about just trying out different things, to be in different social situations while remaining in this protective environment. There are always people that take it more seriously than others, but in these conditions it's a chance to test out different social skills.
Are they experimenting with personality traits that they aren't necessarily confident enough with in the real world?
Yeah, absolutely. This is one of the big advantages of participating. You can't fail, nothing can happen to you, it's all in the game. They talk a lot about in-time and out-time. You can be extremely aggressive in trading, for example, something that you might never do in a real situation.
Do people often find their in-time characters coming out in their out-time? Does it get confusing?
No, not really. I never met someone that extreme. But there are some people that are their in-game character more than their actual self. In any subculture you will always have these extremes at both ends. From what I experienced, all of them were rational enough to know what they were doing. They are just having fun, that's their main goal, I think. Breaking out of their normal life and doing something different.
Could you see yourself ever getting into it?
For me being able to photograph it was something in between, which was pretty cool. I can be with them, experience it and photograph it at the same time, but without getting fully involved. I wasn't in character so it can be a bit weird when you approach someone who doesn't want to break their character by talking with you.
How did you get around that?
Often they would talk a very old German, and I would then just adapt in the same style. They might say "What are you doing with that crazy lens apparatus in-front of your eyes?" But if you respond playfully then they're into it. But most of the time they are just happy to have their picture taken because they spend so much time making their costumes.
I was really surprised by the attention to detail that seems to go into these characters—not just to their appearance, but also their personalities.
Yeah, they think of the whole history of the character, it's forged over years. But it can happen at LARP fests that your character dies and all that work is finished—you have to come up with a new one.
What goes on at these fests when they're not posing for pictures or fighting each other?
Just walking around the tents, you can see so much crazy stuff taking place. You might get jumped by two guys who will try and rob you for all your gold, but then you can just as easily end up killing them both. All of them said this is their favorite time—when they camp out for days on end.
There seem to be quite a lot of women involved in LARPing as well.
Yeah, it's almost half and half. I spoke to one girl and she's a bartender. She just likes to be in the environment of the bar and loves to hear people telling stories. Another girl—her name is Cookie—she likes giving people cookies and is always laughing. She will jump in in any tense situation, do something kooky, and then people are happy again. So what happens if you have a relationship in this fantasy world? Does it then continue in the real world?
A couple I know met in character, but then outside fictional character it was awkward because they didn't know what to talk about. They just didn't really know each other's real self—they only knew that in-game person. So they had to get to know each other all over again. It's an interesting development but they worked it out in the end. It goes back to what I said before: Maybe you're not that guy that finds it easy to talk to girls, but when you're in character you're more likely to try stuff or say things that you normally wouldn't. You can test these skills out there and then eventually use them in the real world.